Friday, October 07, 2011

Knapsack 10-13

Notes From My Knapsack 10-13-11

Jeff Gill

An Empire By Any Other Name


For Christian believers, the challenge of living out your life day to day according to the principles you affirm is called "discipleship." A disciple is a follower of someone, and for a Christian, Jesus is whom you are following.

Let me say right up front that the most straightforward response to living in a violent world as a Christian is pacifism. The examples are there, the teachings are there, and frankly, while living it may be a "heavy lift," the discipleship of pacifism is an easy defense.

There are places, though, where it seems soldiers are not told they must quit their jobs in order to follow "the Way" of the early church, where John the Baptist just tells them to be content with their pay and not use their authority to extort more from civilians. Peter after the Resurrection, in the earliest life of the church, deals with Roman soldiers without ever telling them to quit.

Perhaps the point is that a Roman centurion was as much a public servant in certain settings as he was a warrior. Which is true in today's US armed forces, as well. At any rate, there is Christian tradition & teaching around a cautious acceptance of a role for the military life.

St. Augustine, around the year 400 AD, as the Roman Empire was falling to pieces around him in North Africa, developed something called "Just War" theory. This leading teacher and preacher of the developing Christian faith believed there were circumstances when going to war (jus ad bellum) was justified: if a legitimate authority declares war; if there is a just cause (such as self defense, defending third parties, or to restore order); and for the right intentions, both objectively (to restore peace) and subjectively (from a position of love for those oppressed, and for enemy).
Just war theory also has guidance for when to go to war: It must be a last resort; you must listen to sincere offers to sue for peace; the effort must be winnable; you should exercise proportionality in damage and reaction to enemy damage; your side shall respect treaties and law; and ultimately, you should be sincerely convinced that your side is just.
While in war itself there are guidelines (jus in bello), says Augustine: you shall observe an absolute immunity for the innocent; weapons must be used so as to distinguish between combatants; your methods must be proportional to the threat posed; and finally all the necessary means to this end in the terrible eventuality of war shall respect human dignity to every extend possible in that situation, which practically speaking includes - no torture, no slander, no rape, no poisoning of wells.

That last point about wells reminds us that these guidelines were written 1600 years ago.  How might Augustine have changed his outline if he saw airplanes, battleships, remote drones with missiles that strike an enemy from halfway around the world? Proportionality and discrimination in the means of war are both aided at times, and obliterated at others by the technologies of modern war. Some would argue that modern war can never be just by these standards.

What would Augustine have thought about our American empire? Because, like the description or not, that's what we are. In reach beyond our borders, in the projection of power, in the extension of our trade and our culture around the world, I don't think Augustine would find any argument credible to say this country is not, in most meaningful ways, an empire. We can argue that we are a kinder, gentler empire than any that has ever bestrode the earth, but we project power to defend our economic interests and national safety at home by acts of violence abroad.

So what are the ethics of empire? Can just war theory be extended to define what a just empire would look like? I will admit to being pragmatic enough in my theology & philosophy to be very impatient with an argument that says it is impossible to be an ethical empire, just as politically I'm very unimpressed by a starting point of "bring all the troops home." That would only make sense if you simultaneously say "and we're going to end all trade beyond our national borders."

And as Augustine was struggling to describe, there are times when injustice & oppression on a national scale require a response.  What hasn't changed over nearly two millennia is the knowledge that such response takes a terrible toll on the individual combatants, the victors as well as the vanquished.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher in central Ohio; tell him your story at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.  

No comments:

Post a Comment